Today marks my month and a half of living in Saigon. I’m sure it seems like a small feat, but it feels big. Every day I’m learning (or seeing) something new, but here’s what I know so far:
1. The excessive beeping isn’t considered rude, but a way of saying, “Excuse me, just so you know, I’m here.” Coming from NYC, it shouldn’t bother me too much. And now that I’m driving, I get it. I really do. But there are so many instances I’ll be sitting in traffic or in a cab and drivers will blare their horns, arbitrarily and incessantly, and I feel like I’m going to lose my shit.
2. I’m a millionaire. Approximately 1 million Vietnamese dong equals $45, so I still feel like a bad ass taking out a couple million from the ATM each week.
3. The coffee and café culture is unmatched. Seriously, I came here thinking that my days of café living were over. Wrong. There are more cafes than I can hope to visit in my time here. And they all have adorable interior décor and sell drinks that cost a fraction of what they cost in America. I have an iced coffee in the morning and afternoon, and it’s the best part of my day. The coffee is rich and almost chocolatey, mixed with a splash of condensed milk… there’s nothing else like it.
4. Speaking of which, everything is ridiculously cheap. I thought it was an exaggeration, but 10,000 vnd for a beer? That’s literally 45 cents. One time, I ordered a 5-course meal and paid $5 for it. After living here, it will be hard to cough up more than $10 for a meal. I’m trying to stay away from Shoe Street, but knowing that I can buy two pairs for $15 is almost too much for my shopaholic heart to handle.
5. Being vegetarian or vegan is super easy. Thanks to the large Buddhist population, vegetarian/vegan restaurants are incredibly commonplace in Vietnam. All vegetarian meals I’ve had here have blown my mind: the fried lemongrass tofu, butternut squash curry, curried pineapple, egg bánh mis, the bánh xèo…
I actually love how vegetarianism isn’t a thing or regarded as an inconvenience, but totally integrated into the culture. Most street food and restaurants have amazing vegetarian options or are purely vegetarian. Not to mention, it’s even convenient to communicate. Simply “chay”—said flat and evenly—means vegetarian. With enough pointing at yourself and the food, they’ll understand that you want in on all the veggie dishes.
6. Yeah, cheese isn’t really a thing here. Neither are most dairy products, which is pretty normal for most Asian countries. You can buy it, but it’s hella expensive. Probably for the best.
7. Being stared at is completely normal, but no easier to get used to. I’ve mostly stopped avoiding stranger’s stares, but find myself purposefully staring back to see what happens. So far, I look away first.
8. Eating street food is one of the best parts of the city. This is where learning Vietnamese comes in handy—deciphering the menu or signs attached to the street cart. Sometimes it takes a little courage to ignore the stares and eat at a stand with a solely Vietnamese menu. I suggest doing a few drive-bys and scoping out what they’re serving before sitting down…
9. People are very curious about… me. Cue the questions. How old are you? Where are you from? No, like what are you? Where are you living? What’s your rent there? Do you have a boyfriend? Why aren’t you married yet?
10. Being a pedestrian might actually be more dangerous than riding on a motorbike. Giving pedestrians right of way is not how Vietnam operates. Crossing the street involves dodging 30+ motorbikes. At. The. Same. Damn. Time. I’ve learned: Just start walking. Confidently. Slowly. Not too slowly. Don’t rush. Never stop. Ignore the internal alarms, just. keep. walking. Unless you want to stay on the same side of the street forever, you have to put your trust in complete strangers’ hands and believe they will avoid you.
11. If there’s room, someone’s going for it. Sometimes, all you can see is a sea of helmets and motorbikes for miles ahead. In fact, their streets are the same as their elevators as their lines. 6 inches on the sidewalk? That will be a competition for a dozen bikes to fill. There’s room for one more person on the elevator? More like, let’s see if we can fit another 5 people. And you want to get off this elevator? You better throw some ’bows because seven more people are going to try to get on first. And if you’re in line, make sure you are as humanely close to the person in front of you as possible—even if there aren’t other people in line—because someone might come up and try to cut in front of you.
12. Eating noodles and rice with chopsticks is actually amazing. It always seemed super difficult at home, but it makes eating so much better here. Might be one of the many secrets to how Vietnamese women are so damn skinny…
13. Can’t get down with noodles and meat for breakfast. I’ve tried, but it’s not happening for me. I need yogurt or eggs or granola. Even just a banana and iced coffee works. Yesterday, I bought what I think is oatmeal…?
14. It’s very easy to get stuck in the expat bubble. I’m trying hard to befriend as many Vietnamese folks as I can because I really want to integrate myself into the culture. However, there’s a distinct divide between expats and locals, and it’s not always easy to bridge.
15. You spend a lot of time drinking and eating at little plastic tables on little plastic stools. Hordes of people sitting in tiny, red or blue plastic chairs arranged on the sidewalk and street like an oversized game of musical chairs. We say, let’s just have a few and go somewhere else. Before we know it, we’ve gone through countless bottles of $4 homemade rum and coke and we’re stumbling to the nearest club (i.e. Apocalypse) to dance off the buzz.
16. Saigon’s location lends itself to some incredible weekend trips. It’s a short train or plane ride away Mui Ne, Dalat, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Hoi An. Not to mention, we border Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore? The planning has already begun.
17. I quit caring (as much) about ants being everywhere. I find them crawling in my bed, on my clothes, in my sink, out from my computer.
18. I crave sweets all the time, but this sweet tooth might be assimilating. Vietnamese desserts are very subtle in sweetness—when it comes to desserts, I think of chocolate, cakes, or donuts. Here, their version is their version of dessert is flan, sticky rice, chè, moon cakes. At a buffet the other night, they had an ice-cream truck, but I found myself going for seconds on the sticky rice, which is basically just rice and sesame and honey…
19. Moving abroad has incredibly difficult, but surprisingly easy. Being so far away from friends and loved ones? Not even the best reception and longest Skype session can assuage that I-miss-home feeling. However, Saigon is incredibly receptive to expats and the things that I thought would be hard have been so easy! There’s such a supportive community here, especially since most people are experiencing the same woes (i.e. where can I find imported goods? Best place for a dentist? Where is the best massage parlour?)
20. Vietnamese is not impossible to learn… I think? I arrived in Saigon armed with a Vietnamese vocabulary of about zero words. Within a month, I’ve expanded that vocabulary to the essentials: hello, no, thank you, left, right, go, drink beer, iced coffee with milk, no sugar, tofu, bill. Now that I’m thinking about it, still not really sure how to say yes or goodbye, strangely enough. When it comes to communication, you learn quickly what you truly value…
The fact the Vietnamese switched over from character-based writing (similar to Chinese) to a Romanized script in the 17th century makes learning the language so much more doable. Never mind that this was as a result of foreign missionaries and colonization… I DIGRESS. Anyways, did you know that there are 12 vowels, 17 consonants, and 6 different tones in Vietnamese? That means each syllable can have up to 6 different meanings based on how you pronounce it, changing the meaning completely. Ma, for example, can mean mother, gravestone, horse, but, ghost, or rice seedling. Don’t even get me started on the differences between northern and southern pronunciation, which completely changes how most words are pronounced. While the letters F, J W and Z don’t technically exist, they do in spirit when certain marks are used, turning perfectly normal letters into a completely different sound altogether.
However, I’ve been practicing different phrases every day, and the point is to try. This language is all about muscle memory and practice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been caught in that awkward situation of trying to say something, then repeating myself several times, raising my voice or changing my intonation five different ways, hoping to God the person will understand me and put me out of my misery. Vietnamese has been described to me as a musical language and the trick is to associate words with tunes to remember it. Here’s to singing my way through my Vietnamese lessons…
21. About the sound “Ng” (eg. Nguyen)—it’s awkward AF to pronounce.
Is the g silent or not???